by Tim Ford
Have you heard of the PTO?
Chances are if you are a fan of triathlon you will have heard those three letters thrown around at one point or another during 2020.
If you listen to the MX Endurance Podcast you are probably extremely familiar with what they are all about because we can’t get James to shut up about the PTO.
This is for good reason. The PTO (or Professional Triathletes Organisation) wants to make the sport of triathlon better. They are looking to follow the success of tennis and golf with their ATP and PGA Tours. I could do a deep dive into how they plan on doing this or the complexities of their business model and could probably write a PhD on the theoretical benefits of an organisation like that for the sport that I love.
Until last weekend, that was about all I could do. It was all hypothetical. We heard what they wanted to do, were promised the biggest race of the year and I was even told people won’t be talking about Kona for much longer.
This weekend saw the inaugural PTO Championship race held as part of the Challenge Daytona triathlon weekend at the Daytona Speedway in the US of A.
What was hypothetical became very, very real.
How did the races go? Paula Findlay won the women’s race and Gustav Iden won the men’s race. There will be an abundance of race recaps, discussions and replays available for you to read and watch, but I want to have a look at the event itself. The things I liked, what I think could be improved and where I see this whole thing going.
What Did I Like?
When I heard this race was going to be on a speedway in Daytona, it didn’t inspire confidence in me. Having raced Bahrain 70.3 last year where part of the bike course was on the F1 track, the experience was cool but the venue was a bit… depressing? Lacklustre? What is it about being in a venue built for something as high-octane as a car race full of people being empty? I guess I sort of expected that for this.
Now while I watched this event from the comfort of my living room in Australia (so cannot comment on what it might have been like there), I thought the venue was fantastic.
I see a real future for this style of racing. Was it picturesque? No. But did it provide the platform for an exciting spectator friendly race? Hell yes! Having witches' hats marking the 20m draft zone made that easy to follow, and the laps made perceiving the distances easy to understand. Being an eternally optimistic person I also couldn’t help myself but imagine the race happening under lights in front of a quarter of a million people. No doubt this would require the entire fan base of triathlon flying to Daytona to watch it but don’t tell me I can’t dream!
It seems so simple but is something we very rarely see. Having a leaderboard that was updating regularly made the race much easier to follow. It meant that while the camera was on the leaders you could still understand what was happening further back in the race.
Was it perfect? Probably not. There were times where athletes who were lapped were in amongst the leaders and would therefore not appear on the leaderboard which made it confusing for the half a second it took me to realise this. But in general, it made a significant impact on the viewing experience.
Now I swear Macca isn’t forcing me to say this, but having someone who knows as much as he does about triathlon commentating Super League Triathlon is one of the best things about Super League.
If you asked me to pick another triathlon expert who can talk as much as Macca, well I would 100% say Belinda Granger. Belinda was far and away the best thing about the commentary team. I think the whole crew did an amazing job and having a mix of experts and newcomers is actually really important.
As a triathlon fan, I know who is who. I understand drafting rules and the way camera angles make athletes look closer or even things as ridiculous as clipping up your helmet before taking your bike off the rack. The thing is, for this sport to grow we need to appeal to non-triathletes, and therefore having a mix in the box meant that Belinda was able to explain (exceptionally well) to not only her fellow commentators but to all of the people watching a triathlon for the first time.
The great comic book writer Stan Lee always said that every comic is someone's first ,and we need to take this approach to commentary as well.
I also need to give lots of praise to Kevin Mackinnon who was out on course amongst the action. That was a great level of insight that we haven’t seen at long course racing before.
How couldn’t you like the racing? Both the men’s and women’s racing had everything you could want. Big moves, blow ups, injuries (not that you want to see athletes get hurt) and the people who apparently didn’t read the script.
The idea that having the biggest names in the sport racing each other will help grow the sport is in my opinion pretty obvious. If there is a way to have more finishes like the 2018 70.3 Worlds Race (still the best triathlon I have ever watched) or the 2012 women’s Olympics finish (the second best) this is surely it. Big prize purse at an event the athletes have a vested interest in.
Do not forget the subtle change to the distances either. The longer swim combined with the shorter bike and run completely changes the dynamic of the race as well as making it much closer to a three-hour event. Not as big a factor in the women’s race but really think about how significant that swim was. Decreasing the swim to say 1.4km would have completely changed the time gaps for people like Sam Long or Lionel Sanders.
What Could Be Improved?
While I definitely think this event was a huge success, I think there are some obvious areas for improvement.
This is just intended to be feedback not criticism. Some of the comments I have seen online because some people lost their feed demonstrates everything wrong with the internet. They had a technical problem the first time they ever broadcast an event. Get over it!
I have already said how surprised I was by the venue. One aspect that I think needs work is the fact that athletes can be lapped. Now I might be saying something controversial here but I think one of the challenges the PTO will be facing is both trying to support the professional athletes (they paid $2500USD to the athlete who came last) and creating an exciting broadcast product.
Simply put, having athletes lapped or impacting the front of the race while they were a lap behind is a bad look. There were multiple times a rider would make a move to the front but not be on the leaderboard because they were actually a lap behind.
To me the easy solution is to add in an elimination rule like they have in Super League. You get lapped, you’re out. I know that this would have serious ramifications for some of the weaker swimmers at the start, but hey, that’s sport right?
We interviewed Holly Lawrence last year and when we asked her how to make the sport look better she said clean up the course for the professionals. In this situation it means removing the slower professional athletes from the course. It makes the race easier to follow and less confusing.
See what I am doing here? I put racing under what I liked and now it is back again! One of the biggest issues anyone trying to make endurance sports exciting is the fact that the distances are as long as they are. What this means is athletes can generate huge leads – good for the athlete, but not so good for the viewer. It was so exciting seeing Gustav run through the field and then… He could have been out for a Sunday jog. The focus shifted to what was happening behind him.
On the bike, I think the most exciting element was whether Lionel would make the front of the race. If you watched the final time trial stage of the TdF this year you would have seen the way they displayed the gap, the speed and what needed to be done for the win. I think there could have been a story about Lionel riding through the field, something to capitalise on this mini-battle in the overarching scheme of the race.
We know the PTO intends to demonstrate more live data at their events such as HR, watts and speed so I am expecting to see this rolled out at the Collins Cup next year.
Again, this is not a PTO issue, it is an endurance sports issue. Could the laps in the water be shorter so they run in and out more? Could the run have been made more of an out and back and less of a lap so we see the athletes together more? Do we need handicaps? I wish I had the answers but the best thing is that none of these areas for improvement had a significant impact on the race.
I am going to go out on a limb here and say that I still think Super League is the gold standard when it comes to triathlon broadcast.
Something that I had taken for granted until the Arena Games this year was the uniforms. It was very difficult to tell who was who on the course especially when using the leaderboard as your reference because of the lap thing I previously spoke about. As someone who likes to use my own tri suit as an opportunity to peacock, I understand that many pros might not want to lose that identity or kit sponsorship they rely on.
Maybe set athletes colours or patterns, give them numbers or something like their ITU colours to help them become more identifiable. I wish I had the answer and it is definitely not critical but this is something that again, I think would help the viewing experience improve.
My hype levels going into this race were pretty high. I am a triathlon tragic and how could you not be excited about the promise of this event? I read during the week that the PTO plan to roll out a series of races following this format and I am here for it!
Was this the best race I ever watched? No, that is still the 2018 70.3 World Championship. Was this the greatest triathlon broadcast I ever saw? No, that is still Super League Triathlon. But, this is an incredible starting point.
When you look at this event in the context of 2020 it becomes even more impressive. I will admit that there were times I didn’t think the race would even happen and to see it happen in this way is a remarkable achievement in itself.
The fact of the matter is that this event was not a let down or anything other than a huge success. They got the best possible field together to race an exciting new distance in a venue that has the potential to turn triathlon into not only a great broadcast event but also a great live event. The only reason I am left anything other than over the moon is due to my own unrealistic expectations not being met.
Sam, Charles, Jane and the entire team at the PTO should be extremely proud of what I hope is the first of many events hosted by the PTO. As a fan of triathlon I am genuinely excited to see what comes next!
Tim Ford is the CEO of MX Endurance and a member of our team of coaches. He has gone from being a complete novice weighing well over 120kg to a top athlete with a 4:06 PB for a 70.3. Through his time in the sport he has learned skills which help him to assist athletes of all levels and abilities.